Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - IW: By the Hour
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IW: By the Hour 03/17/2008 - 9:49 PM

JwtIs it generally agreed that the U.S. has lost all its local flavor, watched it sink in a sea of strip malls, Staples, and Safeways? After traveling from New York to Palm Springs in 12 long hours yesterday, I’m going to respectfully disagree. To fly from the big city to the big desert is to pass from one psychic extreme to another. You begin in New York with grey sky, bare trees, honking horns, grumbling street-dwellers, and a view that goes no farther than the top of the four-story brownstones across the street. You finish in California at the center of the Great Retired America, where the hills that jut out of the desert look photo-shopped into the background; the friendly seniors at the hotel swap stories about their permanent vacations; and the architecture starts with a neon sign for In and Out Burger.

I was planning to devote much of this first post to Tamira Paszek, the teen who, I thought as of yesterday, may be most likely to join the WTA’s current top tier, and who played at 11 A.M. But walking the grounds at Indian Wells this morning, watching practice sessions with Gasquet and Ivanovic, contemplating matches featuring Tsonga, Mathieu, Nadal, and Baghdatis, it quickly became clear that the only thing to write about was everything. Being here early in the event, you feel surrounded by the sport, rather than focused on individual players. Then Paszek, who called for a trainer at one point, made the decision moot when she went down with nary a peep against Casey Dellacqua.

So here’s a wrap-up of my first day's rounds at Indian Wells, on an hourly basis.

10:00 A.M.: The soccer field
If you spend any time at one of these events, either on site or at a player’s hotel, you’re bound to catch a glimpse of the French men’s contigent. Clement, Llodra, Grosjean, and Santoro play pool together at night and show up early the next morning for some improv two-on-two soccer. I watch them for a few minutes on a grass field here, as Clement runs circles around Llodra.

Watching Clement’s fast feet, it’s clear that a soccer background has its advantages for tennis players, especially on clay. I’ve always thought basketball, with its jab steps, quick turns, and ready positions on defense, was the ideal preparation, but it doesn’t teach you to create with your feet the way soccer does. American tennis players learn from the fastball, the long bomb, and the slam dunk; the rest of the world learns with their feet and develops the patience that soccer demands.

10:00: Practice courts
Getting a look at a player’s game in practice allows you to hone in on their technical aspects more than you can during a match—the mental side of their game is conspicuously absent in practice. After a couple of seconds watching Gasquet, it’s obvious how odd the start of his forehand is. He begins in front of his body—in front of his forehead, in fact, a seemingly wasteful tic. His practice session is pretty perfunctory, but he’s sharp during his win over Chela later.

On the next court over is Ana Ivanovic, looking skinnier—smaller, really—than ever. A number of fans ask me who she is and are shocked when I answer. I notice right away how good she is at moving forward and cutting off the angle on her backhand—she’s on that shot every time and she looks forward to it. But she struggles with the low forehand. Something about her grip or swing doesn’t let her get under it easily, and she sends a lot of balls flat and long. This looks like something that will always trouble her.

11:00: Practice courts
Nadal comes out a little sluggish and unhappy for his practice with a bareshirted Haas. Just as he does at the start of every match, he makes Haas wait while he ties and reties his shoes. The German’s shots are crisper and more penetrating than Nadal’s, and it's clear he remains somewhat of a work in progress on hard courts. His setup, swing, and follow-through take just a split-second longer than Haas’, and even in the warm-up he’s hitting off his back foot. But Nadal grinds his way into it, as he always does—his natural work ethic easily overcomes any early sloth. By the end, it’s Haas who’s losing points and bellowing in the direction of his new coach, Dean Goldfine.

Fifteen minutes later, I come back and find Nadal on the soccer field, ignoring the piercing cries of kids calling for “Rafa!!!” A woman near me scolds her child for standing at the back of the autograph line for Nadal, then says to her husband: “He’s never going to get anywhere in the world being shy.” (I want to say he could become a tennis journalist, but then begin to wonder if that would prove her point.)

One other fan note: There’s a genius in every crowd at these practice sessions, and he happens to be near me. He confidently tells a friend, “You see how they never hit the sweet spot? That’s what I mean, it’s hard to hit the sweet spot.” I walk away trying to imagine how good Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas would be if they could actually figure out how to hit the sweet spot!

12:30: Owner’s Box
I’m led by the publisher of TENNIS Magazine through a few doors and up and down a few stairs into a section of the stadium that’s normally off-limits to the likes of a journalist—the owner’s box. Here we watch Blake and Moya from directly behind the court; have the sun shaded by huge, rolled-down blinds; have our cokes refilled and our plates taken away. Someone even gives me a pen when I need one. It's a glimpse of a better way of watching tennis. But Tsonga and Mathieu are starting out on Court 2, so I’ve got to rejoin the masses and pour my own cokes.

2:00: Stadium 3
Does Daniela Hantuchova aggravate you with her inevitable, and seemingly so preventable, meltdowns? Go watch her in doubles—like Anna Kournikova, her natural tennis skill, her tennis IQ as they say, is allowed full play, with none of that pesky anxiety to drag her down. In this early-round match, she hits each return perfectly—her backhand is so smooth it can be hard to notice when she actually makes contact—and wins one game single-handedly with two—two!—topspin lob winners, one forehand, one backhand.

3:00: Stadium 2
It’s time for the most buzzworthy match of the day, Tsonga-Mathieu. They don’t help the atmosphere by walking out in matching shirts. My colleague Tom Tebbutt, the tennis writer of Canada, who's sitting with me, says that when this happens the player with the lower ranking should change his shirt. Not a bad suggestion.

As for the match, it mostly lives up to its billing. Tsonga is smaller than he looks on TV, not as hulking, and he begins by mishitting a few backhands. But he’s as focused as possible—he punctuates winning points with a series of intense, indecipherable, half-grunts, half-allezs. He also moves off the block for his service return like few players I've ever seen. Anticipation plus athleticism is a lethal combination.

There’s nothing to separate the two players through the first set, and that holds true all the way until 6-5 for Tsonga in the tiebreaker. That’s when, after a long point, Tsonga makes one last scrambling return and Mathieu frames the highly makeable putaway volley. A heartbreaking end for Mathieu, but a deserved one for Tsonga—it was his superior athleticism that forced Mathieu to have to hit one more shot in a tight situation.

3:00: Practice Courts
Federer has drawn a crowd on a distant practice court. There are acres of empty space around all other courts, then standing room only for his. He’s working fairly hard, perhaps a little harder than I’ve seen him in the past in practice, against Victor Hanescu. Like Nadal, Federer gets better as the hour goes on, but he seems to go out of his way to be ordinary in practice. Win a few points, lose a few, take a nice break on the sidelines, get the whole thing over with, don’t put on any airs or acknowledge his stardom in any way.

Actually, he does do it in one way, which may have been accidental. His outfit consists of a grey T-shirt—and his tuxedo pants. They look completely out of place here; maybe he was out of laundry. Or who knows, maybe he wasn’t sure we would recognize him without them.

3:45: Stadium 1
In the last three or four games between Nadal and Donald Young, the action is pretty even, and exciting. But you wouldn’t know either of those things watching the body language of the two players. Nadal is in his usual between-point position—head up, chest out. So is Young—shoulders slumped, head down. The most important lesson the American can learn from Rafa is available just by looking across the net.

4:45: Press Room
After an hour, Nadal walks in for his presser, smiling, head still up, chest still out. He sits down and says, “Sorry for the late.” One questioner asks how his drop shot worked, since he’s been practicing it. Nadal says, “ You see how some were, OK, and others…” He looks straight down and shakes his head for a few seconds as the room breaks up.

Next up for the Spanish comedian is Tsonga, and the press room can't wait. I’m going to pick Nadal. The pros tend to like the places they’ve won before, and find their grooves more easily there. Rafa seems happy to be back, and who can blame him. There are blue skies, crystal-clear hills looming, a soccer field, and an In and Out Burger sign down the street.

I'm heading in that direction—you can't beat that local flavor. (Actually, I'll probably skip it for Italian tonight, but I won't leave without it.) See you tomorrow.


Posted by jb 03/17/2008 at 10:16 PM

Steve -this was great. No offense to paszek - but i'm glad you went with the overview of 'everything'! Interesting about being able to see the tics in players games in practice vs in the match... i'll be looking for ana's and reeshard's forehands now, should i be able to glimpse them online.

Posted by Sher 03/17/2008 at 10:16 PM

Hah, great account, thank you so much! It feels like we're there. I hope you do a lot more of these.

Posted by abbey 03/18/2008 at 12:05 AM

written transcripts really can't do nadal's pressers justice. the raised eyebrows, the confused look on the face as he tries to decipher the english questions, the mangled english answers, and his 1001 facial expressions all get lost in the transcription. i say every nadal interview should be on video. ;)

oh, and steve i do hope you're right in your prediction. i haven't seen nadal play well yet. i don't know if it's just the wind or he hasn't really found his form yet. hope he finds it in time for his match against tsonga.

Posted by Sher 03/18/2008 at 12:31 AM

You know, does Djokovic ever practice? I don't think i've ever read an account of his practice, although one suposes he must...? Who does he hit with and what odd quirks does he exhibit, steve? Is he laid-back like Roger or intense like Rafa? Is he shirtless like Haas? :)

Posted by Andrew 03/18/2008 at 12:53 AM

I saw Djokovic hitting with his coach at about 6pm this evening. But I missed the Federer practice session. Trust the veterans to pick up on this one.

Posted by highpockets aka "Madame 'Pockets" 03/18/2008 at 01:13 AM

Here are some clips someone put together from previous Rafa pressers:

Posted by felizjulianidad 03/18/2008 at 01:37 AM

I went (am still in the painful transition of going) from soccer to tennis after an injury. I was definitely much better at the former than I currently am at the latter; however, I had about 12 more pounds of muscle on my legs back then. I also had a few years in an American school once and played on the basketball team; tennis is definitely mid-way between the two. I would have to agree with you about soccer being better for clay preparation. That kind of lateral action is just fun.

Nadal, by the way, is very, very good at soccer. He plays a few times a year in matches for former top pros in Spain (it'd be like playing doubles with, say, Bruguera, Becker and Chang) and he usually thrashes them. Unlike his tennis (which is defensive), he is a striker on soccer and stuffs himself silly with goalscoring. However, after shooting some penalty kicks with Real Madrid's goalkeeper, the goalkeeper said he wouldn't select Nadal to take penalty kicks in a real match.

I moved to Dubai after spending the last year between California, the UK and Spain, so Indian Wells is just about the hardest tournament for me to watch. Glad you guys can be there.

Posted by Dee 03/18/2008 at 05:15 AM

I was hoping it would be Matthieu vs Nadal rather than Tsonga vs Nadal as Nadal has got a perfect record against Matthieu. On the other hand, Nadal vs Tsonga for a rematch is like Ali vs Frazier all over again. Nadal should keep his returns low as Tsonga will be all over him.

May the better player at the moment win.

Casey - go girl! For Asia fans ... how many Asians are there left anyway?

Nice writing Steve. I enjoyed reading the by-the-hour details ...

Posted by Joy 03/18/2008 at 07:33 AM

I never get to see the ladies play. I don't know if starsports ever shows them. The broadcast in the Philippines starts as early as 0400 to about 1300. I don't get to watch until noon since I have to leave for work at around 0900 although I get out of bed early and leave the tv open while I do my stuff hoping that I could glimpses of the matches on screen.

Posted by Maedel 03/18/2008 at 08:25 AM

I like the format and the reporting. Nice writing...!

Posted by patrick 03/18/2008 at 08:56 AM

Asians left in IW as of now:
WTA - Dellacqua, Mirza(if India is part of the Asian world)
ATP - Lee.

Posted by Or 03/18/2008 at 10:07 AM

Roger is definitly having a weird practice clothes moment. His current batch of shirts is something I would expect to see on Andy Roddick - but I like it.

Posted by fifteenlove 03/18/2008 at 10:16 AM

isn't dellacqua from australia? that's not asia. and india IS asia.

Posted by Dee 03/18/2008 at 10:41 AM

Hi Patrick, thanks for the update. Have not posted in weeks but do read the posts once in a while. Oh yes, how are your picks doing ---? :P)

fifteenlove - in the strictest sense Casey Delacqua is from Australia but, hey, she is from this part of the world though 'down under'. We've got the same time as Perth ('cept that they are on DST now), and 3 hours behind Sydney. I am in Manila now.

Joy, ESPN Star Sports only shows the men's games and yes, around 4AM. Nooooo women!..... Eurosport used to advertise that they would be showing WTA tournaments - haven't seen any yet.

Go Sania and Casey!

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 10:45 AM

If Tsonga brings his flatened and deep inside-out forehand to Nadal's backhand side hard enough to make him scramble the Spaniard is going to regret it as Tsonga's drop volleys are simply unreal. Unlike Nadal (who actually constructs points as he rallies) Tsonga can pound at anytime. That down the line forehand he punished Nadal with in Australia was phenomenal, maybe only Federer and Gasquet go for it with such confidence and as much reckless abandon. Not to mention that Tsonga has the bigger serve and has GREAT touch at the net.

Also, the Frenchman (having beaten Nadal at a great stage already)is not intimidated by Nadal as he knows what strategy to use and he knows it will work everytime (if well executioned) as he has more versatility and explosiveness attributes to his game than Nadal. Tsonga gave a lesson on how to beat Rafa to the world with the beatdown he gave him Down Under and I really don't see why it would not happen again.

Tsonga has the kind of game that is a bad match up for Nadal. Nadal's crazy topspin cross-court forehand doesn't do much damage as Tsonga is tall enough to take the ball early off his backhand side and re-direct it with even more power. It would be a thriller seeing these two play on clay, hope it happens this year...

Posted by ptenisnet 03/18/2008 at 10:51 AM

There was a time when India wasn't part of Asia. But, fair is fair, back then even Asia wasn't Asia.

Posted by ptenisnet 03/18/2008 at 10:53 AM

Paszek really didn't have much of a chance if IW is playing slow like it did last year.

Posted by Dee 03/18/2008 at 11:11 AM

About Nadal and soccer: I found a clip once --- Nadal at this exhibition game with Juan Pablo Montoya of Spain in his team where Rafa displayed his soccer prowess. I didn't realize he could have been a very good player. No wonder his bio expressly states that at 12 he had to choose between soccer and tennis.

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 11:28 AM

The advantage football (or soccer as you guys call it) gives is the one we call "change of rythm" or "rythm change", let me explain...

This happens when a player is running full speed with the ball under control at his feet as he is being chased by a defender or whoever is trying to get the ball back from him as he approaches the goal line or a "dead end"; suddenly, the player "changes" the pace, going from literally full speed to almost, almost stop and goes for a second towars a different direction; this tactic actually throws the defender off as he does not know when the player who has the ball is going to pull this off and by the time the defender slows down to try to react, the other player takes off again (thus changing the pace back) in the direction he was originally going or any other and leaves the deefnder behind...

This increases reaction, fitness and reflexes that tennis players who played football (soccer again) can apply to their advantage in detriment of those who never played the sport, in other words: gives them much better footwork.

Posted by Miss Kiss 03/18/2008 at 11:40 AM

I enjoy behind-the-scenes posts, and am glad you decided to go this route. Seeing as I've only seen tennis on TV so far, it's nice to get an idea of what it's actually like at a tournament.

Posted by patrick 03/18/2008 at 12:43 PM

Swiss Maestro,
Tsonga showed his hands when he played Sela on Sunday but the slow courts will help Rafa tomorrow and will look to have some long rallies to test his fitness. Tsonga was slowing down in the 4th set against Novak at the finals of AO.

Posted by athanguy 03/18/2008 at 01:06 PM


PAcific Life - Men's games are shown live at Star sports. While the Women's game will be shown live starting with the Semi-finals at BALLS Channel. If you are with Sky Cable, it is at Channel 33. Go search the website of Skycable. They are now showing WTA tournaments (replays) at BALLS - Dubai, Bangalore. And also some ATP tournaments- ABN AMRO, etc. Better replacyed than nothing. But at least more WTA tournaments at BALLS. I think BALLS are now more on the WTA and STARSPORTS more on ATP. Hope this will help u.

Posted by skip1515 03/18/2008 at 01:12 PM

1. "Is it generally agreed that the U.S. has lost all its local flavor, watched it sink in a sea of strip malls, Staples, and Safeways? After traveling from New York to Palm Springs in 12 long hours yesterday, I’m going to respectfully disagree."

This is why I now try to drive rather than fly, if at all possible. It just got silly seeing the middle 90% of the country from 30,000 feet.

2. "American tennis players learn from the fastball, the long bomb, and the slam dunk; the rest of the world learns with their feet and develops the patience that soccer demands"

When I lived in Switzerland in the mid 70's I learned why clay court players played the way this did: they were used to running all day and had terrible technique for throwing a ball. As basketball players they couldn't pass to save their lives, but man could they run you into the ground. As tennis players they did the running bit, but generally had very funky serves that functioned exclusively as a means of beginning the point. That era is long gone.

3."A heartbreaking end for Mathieu, but a deserved one for Tsonga—it was his superior athleticism that forced Mathieu to have to hit one more shot in a tight situation."

Well, that plus Mathieu's known propensity for oatmeal-brain shots at crucial junctures. He could have made that one more shot, like the big boys and girls at the very top of the rankings, and you'd have put up a different post.

4. "The most important lesson the American can learn from Rafa is available just by looking across the net."

Brilliant commentary.

5. "I'll probably skip it for Italian tonight, but I won't leave without it."

You live in NY and you're going out for Italian in SoCal? They won't let you back onto Mulberry Street.

Posted by Syd 03/18/2008 at 01:13 PM

Steve, terrific. Thanks. I feel as if I'm right there.

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 01:20 PM

Posted by patrick 03/18/2008 @ 12:43 PM

Swiss Maestro,
Tsonga showed his hands when he played Sela on Sunday but the slow courts will help Rafa tomorrow and will look to have some long rallies to test his fitness. Tsonga was slowing down in the 4th set against Novak at the finals of AO.

Maybe Patrick but I said Tsonga can pound at anytime. Usually Nadal has to have a few strokes to get into hitting a winner position (he constructs the points gradually as the rally goes on). I think this time because the court is significantly slow it will go to 3 sets but Tsonga will still be through to play Gasquet (I hope, I enjoy his genius when he is on).

Posted by Nick 03/18/2008 at 01:26 PM

Nadal's comments after the Australian Open against Tsonga was that JWT played an essentially error-free match, which is basically true. The Frenchman was on a roll from the first round and never looked back. But then what happened? Since then, Tsonga lost his first match after the AO and hasn't been seen until IW. His match yesterday against Mathieu wasn't a decisive thrashing by Tsonga - it was a pitiful First Serve percentage and over 40 errors by Mathieu that carried the day. Even with Mathieu's game collapsing, it was a tight match at 76 64. But hey, sometimes you don't have to win a match when your opponent is busy losing it to you.

Nadal-Tsonga here will be a much tighter affair, if for no other reason Nadal has a much better idea what to expect. In the AO, Tsonga was coming in on all of Nadal's short shots, then punishing them into oblivion. This court is much kinder to Nadal's topspin, and the match is likely to be decided by how deep Nadal can keep his forehand to Tsonga's backhand. If Tsonnga can force Nadal to cough up a lot of short ones, he'll be able to smash through the Nadal forehand & then he wins. If Nadal keeps consistent depth on his shots, forcing Tsonga to play from behind the baseline - there will be no hitting through Rafa's forehand, which should be enough to carry it for Nadal.

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 01:31 PM


"...sometimes you don't have to win a match when your opponent is busy losing it to you."

That is exactly Nadal's style! making his opponet miss...

Posted by Orpheo 03/18/2008 at 02:03 PM

That is no small feat...we are talkin about the best players in the world that he makes miss. Allthough he can go agressive at times and actually dominate a match in attacking mode.

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 02:18 PM


True. But I still love attacking tennis and shot making virtuosity (Federer, Gasquet, Tsonga) that's why I root for players with relentless attacking styles.

Posted by Orpheo 03/18/2008 at 02:22 PM

I will agree on gasquet and fed but i dont believe Tsonga is yet on that shotmaking level. He still seems to me that he goes out on a "all or nothing" is beautiful when it is the "all" part but the "nothing" part can still creep in...

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 03:00 PM

spot on if by "all" you mean those beautiful drop volleys that rattled Nadal all day long Down Under...

Posted by M-life 03/18/2008 at 03:40 PM


Those drops were indeed a thing of beauty. JWT continued to strike those shots perfectly from beginning to end. Those droppers were as much as anything, responsible for the reletive ease in which he was able to take that match. He had Nadal thinking about it from mid 2nd set on to no avail. Which brings up a good point about their match tomorrow. Hard to imagine that JWT will be able to duplicate that shot with the same effectiveness as he did Down Under, especially since Nadal will likely be looking for it. JW might still win, but he might have to find another way to hurt him.

Posted by Madeleine 03/18/2008 at 03:44 PM

Great article. I am always interested in your take on tennis. I'm pulling for Nadal. But Tsonga will be after him. Once you beat a number two player, you have the same appetite.

Posted by SwissMaestro 03/18/2008 at 04:02 PM

Nadal is great at ignoring bad momentum but does anyone think Tsonga might be in his head just a little bit? Like Steve said: "Tsonga toyed with Nadal in Australia"

Posted by Nic 03/18/2008 at 04:05 PM

Not sure if you aren't overrating the head-up chest-out stuff. Old Pistol Pete used to (still does) slump along back to the baseline, barely lift his head to the ball boy, turn around, bounce once twice and thwack one up around his opponent's ears.
Used to reduce most of them to intimidated emotional wrecks before the end of the first set.

Maybe this is nearer to what Donald Young should be watching and aiming for?


Posted by Carlos 03/18/2008 at 04:10 PM

Federer also had to pick between soccer and tennis. Good soccer player = good tennis player? I read somewhere once that tennis is a running game where you hit a ball once in a while. So true. That's why it's so important to do movement drills, not just practice hitting the ball back and forth........

Posted by just horsen 03/18/2008 at 05:47 PM

great post steve. That rafa vs. tsonga match should be a great one i think it it will be nadal in 3 sets.

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/18/2008 at 06:17 PM

Rafa will be looking for revenge and I think he will get it. Miami will be much more exciting for the WTA with Justine there.

Posted by Jon Reiss 03/18/2008 at 06:24 PM

Sweet post Steve

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 03/18/2008 at 07:27 PM

Great piece.

On Saturday, it was more like 10:00 a.m. - intolerable wind.

12:00 p.m., increasing wind,

3:00 p.m., increasingly chilly wind.

6:00 p.m. -- OMG! isn't there any shelter in this entire complex?

Also, some tennis was played.

Posted by Joy 03/19/2008 at 04:04 AM

Hi Dee and athanguy!

Thanks for the info regarding the cable channels here in the Philippines.

Athanguy, I'm with Destiny Cable Network so no Balls channel for me. I'd would have loved to see the Ladies play.

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